ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Phenomenal!

First, let me quote one of more mindboggling bits of statistics I have seen: The Jewish community - viewed here purely in cultural/ethnic terms, nothing religious - has something like 20 million people(far less than half a percent of the world population) and it has produced something like a quarter of all Science Nobel laureates - or maybe even more!

To give a comparison, the highly literate Malayali community outnumbers Jews almost two to one. But the number of Nobel prizes 'Mallus' have won is exactly zook (yes, we have *lost* at least one Nobel - the one repeatedly denied to physicist ECG Sudarshan!)

Jewish over-representation in the upper reaches of science has been well-known to me for a long time, but I was totally unprepared for the above *quantification* thereof - the antecedents of Einstein and Feynman had been known for many years but when Pauli, Josephson, Wigner, von Neumann, Landau, Andre Weil, Ed Witten, Steven Weinberg and so on keep piling up (source: Wikipedia), the effect is truly overwhelming!

Geographically, despite their paltry numbers, Jews have a great range; And this explosion of Jewish creativity is very widespread as well. Though the deepest springs of the phenomenon appear to be in Eastern Europe, Jews from the entire sweep of their present geographical range (India included) have achieved world level distinction in several domains of creativity. Indeed in countries like Russia and Hungary where the Jewish population is very small, almost the *majority* of eminent academicians today happen to be of Jewish origin.

And as one looks a little closer at this remarkable intellectual flowering, its most telling feature is revealed: it is a very recent phenomenon, less than two centuries old - although Jews have been around for over three millennia.

Indeed, if one surveys the intellectual landscape of the western world during Renaissance and immediately thereafter, the tallest peaks - Fermat, deCartes, Kepler, Harvey, Galileo, Newton...- were almost all non-Jewish. There had been the occasional Jewish genius and even Jewish Golden Ages (as in the Arab-ruled Spain before 1000 AD) but the totality of their achievement was never really inconsistent with their share in the population. Even in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jewish intellectual had not begun to overwhelm - Euler, Gauss, Lavoisier, ... were all 'Gentiles' (about the earliest Jewish Mathematical genius I know of was Frenchman Olinde Rodrigues (1795-1851).

But come the latter half of the 19th century and one sees Jewish seekers of scientific manna from all over the west suddenly rising way beyond the level of the 'rest' - and with exponentially increasing frequency. From the Minkowskis, the Freuds, the Mathematicians from Russia and Poland and Hungary ... on to the Einsteins and Paulis and countless Twentieth Century and post-Millennial masters, the deluge of Jewish creativity has only gotten more powerful with time!

Even in areas like Western Classical Music, where the greatest masters of 17th and 18th centuries were almost all non-Jewish, Jews have excelled in more recent times. And that reminds me of an anecdote (not sure if it is authentic, but I guess it is illustrative in a rather profound way):

Someone asked famous Jewish violinist Itzhak Perlman as to how his family had so many gifted violinists. The answer was: "While fleeing from Pogroms, a violin could be easily carried under one's arm. We could not have possibly chosen to specialize in the Piano!"

(And after pogroms ceased in post-1917 Russia, things appear to have changed somewhat: a virtuoso pianist who often performed and recorded with Perlman was Vladimir Ashkenazy, ethnically a Jewish Russian!).

I am not knowledgeable enough to analyze the factors which triggered this Jewish phenomenon of truly Biblical proportions. But I do see some serious lessons for the wider world: Immense potential greatness is intrinsic to mankind (and there is far more of it available now than there ever has been, given our rising numbers and education levels); and it is just that the tiny Jewish community, rather mysteriously, has found the magic key to unlock this potential. In other words, Jews have NOT overachieved, but the rest of us (Mallus and all) have been a *mass of criminal underachievers*; and we need to do something serious about it!

Note: A more low-key and on-going process is the slow decline of Germany. World leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, German Science has now fallen behind the US, France and UK and Russia to almost Indian levels. The expulsion of the Jews during the Third Reich must have plenty to do with that!

7 Comments:

  • At 3:54 AM, Blogger Karthik said…

    Great post Nanda. Probably a comparison of the Jews would be justified if we take into account the Brahmin community of India. Even then, the achievements of the Jews is amazing.

    In Physics it was Einstein, Pauli and Feynman.

    In films it is Steven Speilberg, Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas.

    That violinist you mentioned..Wasn't the film "Pianist" similar to his life..based on a Poilsh Jew violinist..

    As to non-Jews who can break the convention of only Jews able to succeed, the best example can be that of Henry Ford, thogh i don't support his anti-Semitist views.

     
  • At 10:01 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks karthik.

    yes, i have heard of comparisons between (especially tamil) brahmins and jews. but then brahmins have been custodians of desi knowledge for ages and jews appear to have had no such monopoly at any point of time - in medieval europe, the christian clergy was the real academic power.
    and the present jewish excellence appears to be only a couple of centuries old.

    i am afraid i have not seen 'the pianist'. let me try to.

     
  • At 9:11 PM, Blogger Karthik said…

    Hi Nanda,
    Just wanted to give you one info. My 8 years senior at school 'Anil Shaji' is now doing his research in Statistical Mechanics under the guidance of ECG Sudarshan. He is also the son of acclaimed director Shaji.N.Karun.

    Just google his name and the first result gives the link to his homepage at New Mexico University :-)

     
  • At 11:43 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    karthik,

    actually, i do know anil shaji (although he probably does not know me - yet); in fact, i have seen him a couple of times, long ago in chennai, when he used to be at iit.

    and nice to know he is doing very strongly in research.

     
  • At 5:40 AM, Blogger Karthik said…

    Nanda, have you read the memoirs of Feynman "Pleasure of finding things out", "What do you care what other people think" etc. Awaiting a future post from you reviewing such books. Will be interesting!

    P.S: Sorry for this recurring comments in a single post. But I think you would be a really good reviewer of such books.

     
  • At 5:58 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    karthik,

    thanks again.

    i have referred to feynman quite a few times in some earlier posts here and have been a big admirer of his lectures. but i have read only parts of 'surely you are joking'and am yet to read 'what do you care...' guess now i should.

     
  • At 8:52 AM, Blogger enu said…

    I heard the reason for the explosion of creativity spoken about recently-- it is because of fact that their position in society europe and elsewhere was marginal; that they were skeptics etc.
    But I believe there must be host of other reasons also. Why, for example, israel where jews are definitely not marginal is still able to keep the count of world class scientists and mathematicians still high.

     

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